Learning How to Learn

There are many jaw-dropping statistics about globalization, but this estimate by a renowned economist may be the most worrisome for U.S. attorneys:

Practically all kinds of employment that do not require physical presence can now be offshored. According to Alan Blinder, this amounts to 22–29 percent of all US jobs. [C]ontinued retraining and improvements in skills to fit American workers for life in a competitive global economy . . . is an inadequate answer.

Will lawyers be among the jobless? And what should law schools do to assure the economic viability of their graduates if more and more legal work moves offshore?

There’s a protectionist alternative, which Dean Baker has mercilessly mocked. I’m not as skeptical as Baker because I believe that local connections and community contribute to an honest and responsible bar. But I would not be surprised if a future DOJ, frustrated by lawsuits the Supreme Court can’t manage to squelch, eventually attacks more of the ABA accreditation and licensure process as an illegal restraint on trade. (My colleague Marina Lao has written a very interesting article on antitrust and law licensure.) Perhaps sub-attorney staffers will take on an increasing role, as “physician extenders” are now doing in medicine.

Even if this speculation turns out to be unfounded, there are other pressures on law schools to address the outsourcing issue. As chair of my law school’s Library and IT Committee, I was asked to sketch out some goals for our next seven years of tech and research education for our students. As I did that, I learned about several initiatives in the area. For example, Harvard Fellow Gene Koo’s task force on legal education nicely sums up some of the key issues any law school must address:

How technology is changing legal practices and what law schools can do to prepare students for a new world of practice

How technology is changing law students and how law schools and practice settings can better accommodate this new “millenial” or “digital” generation

How the new market of legal practice is changing the way new lawyers are being trained and how technology can better meet this emerging field

How technology is offering new capabilities for education and training and how law schools and training programs can better accomplish their mission using new technologies

One of the key issues here is how much time a law school should spend teaching students how to master particular technologies (Westlaw, Lexis, Google, MSWord, time management software, etc), versus teaching students how to learn new systems. We live in an age of “fast capitalism,” when innovators are constantly altering business models and a libertarian ethos fuels suspicion of attempts to conserve existing patterns of exchange via governmental intervention. Time invested in learning one particular technology may end up being wasted as lower-cost (or higher-power) rivals displace it. Teaching someone how to use a given system for research or document preparation is at least a relatively straightforward task; teaching someone how to choose among such systems (or learn new systems) is a more difficult one.

In some future posts, I’ll suggest ways to accomplish it. For now, let me say that Michael Madison’s essay “The Lawyer as Legal Scholar” is one of the best pieces I’ve seen on the integration of law profs traditionally discrete roles as “scholars” and “teachers.” Dedicated scholars’ efforts to navigate the vertiginous realm of scholarly achievement and recognition may just anticipate the flexibility, creativity, and persistence that will be needed by law graduates to succeed in a globalizing economy.